The Role of Anthropology

The year is 2016. For months now, a strange unnerving tension has lingered over the sixth form block, creating an unease that most students had never felt before. Every few days, somebody gets an email telling them if their university of choice has accepted or rejected them. To inexperienced young adults in a university-directed trajectory, those emails are a make or break moment, a life or death situation. Getting that email from UCAS, “Application Status Notification”, induces a panic unlike anything else. Heart flutterings, uncontrollable shaking, and onset nausea are all typical. And opening those emails… reveals your fate. Either your future is confirmed or denied. Egos are bruised on a daily basis by the unknown faceless entities of admissions offices. Just a simple email is enough to crush a person’s motivations; all their hard work falls away. A future ruined.

My future, I had decided, was going to be at the University of Edinburgh studying anthropology. But it seemed that the universe had other plans, giving me a resounding “nah”. After getting rejected, I spent the rest of my final year scrambling to salvage what I could of my tumbling academic performance. It was an uphill battle, but I made it through, grabbed my grades and ran. So, off I went on a jolly gap year, where I could figuratively rebuild my backbone, strengthen my resolve, and learn what I needed to get my future back on track.

What I realised very early on in my year out was how little I knew about anthropology, about the subject I was “so passionate about”. Often, conversations with confused family members or friends would end up with me belittling it to “people studies”. The question that followed in suit was then, “how is that different to sociology?” At that point in time, I had no idea. And the rest of my year out proceeded similarly, with continued attempts to understand the true meaning of anthropology. Fast forward a few months and I got accepted to Edinburgh on the course I wanted. What I realised my application was missing was conviction: why did I want to study anthropology? But regardless of what doubt I had in my field, my future was back on track, even though I still couldn’t tell people what it meant to study anthropology

In all honesty, going into third year, I still couldn’t give a dictionary definition of the subject I’m studying. Some might say that these first two years of university have clearly been wasted; that I spent too much time skipping lectures (which is true) to understand it. But I would have to disagree, anthropology has never been a subject that sticks to definitions, and I am not going to try and go against the grain. Instead, I’ll tell you what it means to me.

The first two years of my course heavily revolved around the study of ethnographies (anthropological texts) that tackle inequality, in one form or another. Whether it be garment workers in Trinidad and Tobago, disease outbreaks in Georgian prisons, or even the racial connotations of rye bread in Danish Schools (yes, this is real); inequality is pervasive in all aspects of life. What struck me with these ethnographies is that they do a stellar job of building a relationship between the reader and the subject; two seemingly unconnected bodies that cannot affect one another. The role of the anthropologist, in my opinion, is to mediate this relationship through certain means: recognising their own position as not only a researcher, but also as an individual with a social identity; providing a platform to empower voices that would otherwise go unrecognised; dismantling inequalities while respecting cultural boundaries.

I’ve definitely taken a big swig of the anthropological ‘Kool-Aid’ this year, and I’ve come out with a newfound belief in the validity of my field. While anthropology has had a troubled past (and foundations within colonialism), it is always first to recognise its own faults, and find ways to improve. In reality, anthropology treats problem solving as a human issue, rather than a technical one, remembering that, at the end of the day, we solve problems for the benefit of people. Its strength in influencing policy comes from this point, always keeping at its core the importance of the people affecting by inequality.

So returning back round to where this gargle of words began, if I could give my anxiety-riddled, self-doubting teenage version of myself some words of wisdom it would be this: the subject you are about to study will be the most important thing you ever learn. It will change not only the way you think, but also the things that you want, and the way you look at the world. Doubt in anthropology is valid, and it is important; it will make your critical skills even better. Much like the people it focuses on, the field will never be stale, it will forever be evolving into something more. As long as there are people, there will be anthropology.

PS. For anyone interested in reading the articles mentioned, they’re easy enough to find:

Prentice, R. (2012), “They Never Showed Me Nothing”: Skill and Self among Trinidadian Garment Workers. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 43: pp.400-414.

Koch, E. (2006), Beyond suspicion: Tuberculosis in Georgian Prisons. American Ethnologist, 33: pp.50-62

Karrebæk, M. S. (2012), “What’s in Your Lunch Box Today?”: Health, Respectability, and Ethnicity in the Primary Classroom. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 22: pp.1-22.